Agents and Expectations

Since assuming the role of a manager ten years ago, it is inevitable that I hear complaints about agents.  Some come from current clients, others from prospective clients, and many from never-to-be clients.

While certain complaints are valid, 90 percent of the perceived problems stem from the lack of understanding of an agent’s role and his or her priorities.  More troubling is that even when some of these “issues” are addressed, rarely does talent reexamine their point of view and adjust accordingly.  Instead, they sublimate their “unhappiness” until an opportunity arises and they can blame the agent for a different slight.

Here are the most common complaints and my responses to them:

“My Agent Doesn’t Get Me Work”

My first question here is does your agent get you opportunities i.e. auditions? If the answer is no or incredibly infrequently, then you need to first examine what an appropriate number of auditions per week for your age group is.  Keep in mind, that 75-80 percent of all auditions call for men or women in their 30s and early 40s.  If you are not in that age group and you are getting five or more auditions a week, you are doing exceptionally well.

“My Agent Is Not Making Me Money”

See above, but also remember that if you are not making money then neither is your agent.  I admit that’s a simplistic argument as agents may book other talent instead, but generally if a performer cannot capitalize on auditions, then they are likely taking opportunities from others who can.  Given the circumstances, talent who are not booking should feel very fortunate that they have agents who maintain faith in them despite the market signaling otherwise.

“My Agent Can’t Get Me Promo (or Trailers) Work”

Commercial talent especially have a completely false sense of how promos work, because they assume there are auditions.  Remember, there are tens of thousands of products and services being sold every year so there are plenty of commercials.  How many networks are there?  While there may be a couple hundred, over half already have a “voice-of,” so auditions are few and far between.  If talent is receiving an audition every couple of weeks, then their agent is likely doing a passable job.

After assessing the points above, if you are still unhappy, then you should look elsewhere—but remember, voice-over is a highly competitive world and rarely is there a difference in activity when moving… only different agents.

SAG-AFTRA – Paying Into Pension and Health

The last ten years have seen a dramatic decrease in union voice-over work especially as it pertains to the union’s middle class (who makes up this middle class is debatable, but I believe it pertains to earning somewhere between 25-100K). One of the great ironies with the decrease in earning is that theoretically there is more voice-over work than any other time in history especially with the increase of promos, narrations, corporate and educational videos, and audio books.

So where is the disconnect? Much of the promo and narration work is non-jurisdictional and the corporate and educational markets have very few large corporate Signatories. The end result is a lot of work without union ties.

Attempting to Buy In

Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s when non-jurisdictional promo and narration work first evolved, there was a handful of talent with individual corporations who believed their corporation could act as a union Signatory. They, in turn, could buy into pension and health by deducting the fees from their non-jurisdictional work and pay themselves the remainder of the money. SAG and AFTRA were both rightfully concerned about the manipulation of the contracts as well as fraud and took a hard line to abolish the practice. Unfortunately, very little was done to organize the cable television networks and while a couple hundred million was dispersed to union talent, very little of that money ended up in the union pension and health fund.

New Frontiers in Corporate and Educational

As the web has become ubiquitous in our lives, so have corporate, educational and all manners of explainer videos on tens of thousands of websites including Youtube. The rates for this work vary dramatically from union scale to rates above and below, but the common denominator is very little is done under union contracts.

Why is so little work union? Three reasons:

1) Web searches very rarely lead to union talent agents and instead, non-union agents, individual talent and pay to play sites are creating one-time rates depending on what they believe the market bears.

2) The companies producing the work are generally very small production or graphics companies who are daunted (or unfamiliar) by union Signatory contracts as well as writing multiple checks for talent, state and local taxes, and union pension and health.

3) Many union talents look at corporate and educational work as a grey area and do not perceive working without a contract as working non-union.

Reexamining Buying In

There is very little reason to believe that small production companies spread throughout the US and internationally will ever embrace union rules and regulations yet that does not mean they will not pay competitive rates. Like the promo market, 25 years ago, there will very likely be little organizing of these production companies as well as few incentives for the production companies to sign off on union agreements.

If that’s the case, talent should be able to charge market rates and back end the fees so individuals can pay into their P&H.

In the end, buying into these kinds of jobs produces three results;

  • More union work for middle class actors
  • Higher rates as union talent and their agents will not have to navigate the perils of union versus non-union and can simply quote competitive rates
  • More money applied to union pension and health

Will buying in have unintended consequences? Of course but every compromise has its share of issues. Regardless, there is just too much potential money on the table and union leaders should immediately start thoughtful conversations on how buying in can be done without talent jeopardizing their union membership.

Ties That Bind

I wrote a piece last week about the lost decade experienced by SAG/AFTRA, and how specifically the voice-over business has faced radical changes that have endangered the union benefits and status of many voice-over professionals. In order to regain some of the lost work, SAG/AFTRA needs to incorporate several measures. One small solution I propose is a SAG/AFTRA voice-over only agreement with employers.

Due to technology, voice-over is a relatively flattened international industry and very rarely do voice-over talent need to perform where the production is based. The opposite is true with on-camera performers and consequently, separate markets have evolved for voice-over and on-camera performers. Current SAG/AFTRA contracts, specifically for commercials, industrials and promos, link the two together, and I am proposing there are strong reasons to separate them.

Why Are the SAG/AFTRA Voice-Over and On-Camera Tied Together?

Initially, there were very strong reasons to have commercial, industrial and promo contracts incorporating both skills as they virtually guaranteed a 100% commitment to union talent on every production. In other words, if production wanted to hire SAG/AFTRA talent on-camera, they would also have to commit to union voices as well. The reverse applied to non-union work and in principal, that rule is supposed to protect union jobs by not allowing production to cherry pick union and non-union performers based on whims or reallocated resources. Unfortunately, a myriad of modern problems evolved as well.

Production Is More Local Than Ever.

One of the first problems that evolved was the evolution of hundreds of local productions.   A decade ago, if you were shooting a series of bank commercials in Colorado or Tennessee, you likely hired a director from New York or Los Angeles and possibly actors from there as well. Today, that’s usually not necessary as there are a slew of capable local directors, camera people and production companies who cut their teeth with easily accessible modern video technology.   Local production companies are most apt to hire local actors, and this is where things get complicated with 100% union contracts.

First, keep in mind, if you are Denver or Memphis there just are not a lot of available SAG/AFTRA actors to begin with and even fewer types to choose from. So unless your production wants to pay travel and casting costs, you are likely hiring from a local non-union pool. A second factor is that many of these jobs tend to have few, if any, speaking parts so they don’t need actors as much as types. As long as a handful look like bankers and another handful look like customers, the director will likely be able to get the performances he/she needs.

What is then missing? The voice-over that weaves the narrative thread. In this scenario, the voice-over is by far the most important performer yet a union actor is not allowed to be hired even when almost everyone involved is willing to spend the money on a union actor. A voice-over specific commercial contract solves this problem and also allows the possibility that the voice talent will be used in other mediums (for instance, radio) as well.

Animation and Graphics Has Also Changed the Landscape.

More and more commercials, industrials and promos today feature incredible animation and graphics, which were impossible a decade ago. SAG/AFTRA already has voice specific animation and interactive agreements yet there are none for commercials and industrials.

Why is this important? Take for instance, the rise of the “Explainer Video.” Before the Internet, an “explainer” was simply known as an “industrial film.” Explainers can be made incredibly cheaply… it’s not unheard of that $500 can get you a high quality explainer video yet what is often missing is a high quality narrator. In many cases, production is willing to pay voice-over union rates, but this is a circumstance where signing a SAG/AFTRA Industrial Agreement incorporating union on-camera actors as well is simply too binding for the producer. For example, any future hopes of incorporating local live action shoots would need to be seriously reassessed once SAG/AFTRA actors are accounted for.

What About Unintended Consequences?

I am sure there will be (and can even anticipate) some unintended consequences, but I still believe that separating some voice-over and on-camera contracts would create a healthier long-term industry. In the very least, SAG/AFTRA should consider it as a pilot program and then assess the results as they evolve.

The Lost Decade: SAG/AFTRA and Commercials

Last week, SAG/AFTRA in New York held a special caucus for commercial performers. My understanding of the meeting was for working actors to hopefully come up with ideas to resurrect lost work and wages. I think the overall idea was excellent, but I believe there are too many false narratives about changes in the industry and I wanted to add some thoughts.

On-Camera Actors Were The First Casualty

For years and years, there were actors who were known in the business as commercial actors. 99% of these actors lived in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, and they made their living doing SAG/AFTRA on-camera and/or voice-over work. Somewhere in the last 10-20 years, the majority of commercial actors working solely on-camera were no longer making a living. Strategic ad buying as well as diversified casting spread the money out dramatically, and on-camera actors were the first casualties in the commercial evolution.

While on-camera work was drying up, commercial voice-over was still consistent, but that has changed dramatically as well. While the same factors (strategic ad buying, diversity) applied, technology really skewed the new paradigm.

Technology Changed Everything

First, came Protools and other digital audio suites, which leveled the skills of audio engineers. As a result, ad agencies no longer needed to spend weeks in the “big city” mixing their spots when someone locally would do. Without the recording studios acting as a hub, actors did not need to be in NYC, LA and Chicago either, and local actors like local engineers became more common.

Second was the advent of advanced graphics. The graphics revolution has led to less and less live action shoots, which obviously has affected on-camera but has also created a dramatic shift away from voice-overs. Whether title cards, animation or CGI, graphics have completely changed commercial story telling. Check out this Coca-Cola ad from 2012 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2nBBMbjS8w). With the exception of the announcer in the beginning, there were likely no voice-actors in the entire piece. As animation has become cheaper, these kinds of spots have been produced more and more often, and voice-over jobs have slowly waned in conjunction.

The third factor was online casting. Voicebank opened the door for every ad agency in the country to initially have efficient access to thousands of mostly union performers. Voice123 and voices.com then allowed smaller ad agencies and production companies to audition mostly non-union actors for their work.

Decentralization

The key result of all three technologies is that talent can be located anywhere. In fact, because so many people work from home, being located outside certain crowded urban areas has distinct advantages in both audio quality and cost of living.

SAG/AFTRA has suffered with decentralization as well because the union’s incentives to join (wage floor, health care and pension) are no longer as important. For instance, the wage floor (scale) is great but reflects life in the larger cities. Significant portions of the US do not need scale to sustain a reasonable lifestyle, leaving no incentive to push for union wages. The Affordable Care Act has also created issues, as voice performers no longer need to worry about completely losing heath care if they work non-union.

Finally, decentralization has led to more and more work being done in Right-to-Work states. Check out this map at the top. The states in green are Right-to-Work states. Performers from any of those states can work on union jobs without ever being compelled to join while still being paid the same and afforded the same rights as union members.

So, is there a solution to any of these factors? It’s hard to say, but I am interested to hear any opinions outside New York, Chicago and LA on how SAG/AFTRA can serve them better.

Thinking Like a Voice-Over Freak

I have been heavily influenced by Freakonomics. Whether the books, the podcast or the website (freakonomics.com), I am always checking out Steven Leavitt and Stephen Dubner’s latest works to give me a fresh perspective, forcing me to examine my own business paradigms.

One example of my “thinking like a freak” was motivated by an excellent blog postby Beth Melsky over the weekend.   She related a story concerning an on-camera casting job for a small market and the frustration that ensued.   In order to understand the nuances, you should definitely read the piece. But, I wanted to examine some basic tenets based only on mathematical estimations, and then put on my agent’s/manager’s hat and reconfigure the equation. Keep in mind, this may be an on-camera example but, of course, everything below applies to voice-over as well.

Here is the gist of the job: One SAG/AFTRA on-camera commercial running in a small market for a single quarterly cycle. The first question is: what does this pay? I am making various guesstimates based on dozens of factors, but in a nutshell, I think the talent should estimate they would gross roughly $750 while factoring in a 10% plus/minus on either side. This does not include any agents and/or manager’s commission, which also has to be factored in.

The next questions involve costs. Beth is very specific that the product is a very low conflict area so the opportunity costs are essentially zero. That brings us to hard costs such as travel, paying for a babysitter, missing a few hours of work etc. If you live in New York City and you do not have any additional costs, the audition is a no-brainer. The most the audition should cost is $5.50 or a round trip on NYC’s subways and buses. Talent should also factor in a Call Back so double the cost to $11.00. In the end, this scenario dictates that an actor needs to spend $11.00 to make $750.00, so it appears to be a sound investment.

What if you do not live in NYC or your costs are significantly more? For instance, is it worth to drive in from New Jersey, pay for a sitter for three hours or to skip that lunchtime shift?

Here are some of the more “Freaky” things I would think about. For instance, how many people is she (Beth) likely seeing for each role? Keep in mind, talent really can not ask that specific question for a myriad of reasons, but instead of passing or taking him or herself out of the running by asking for more money, the talent can ask how long the session is going. Assuming casting will take roughly 10 minutes for each appointment and the session is going from 10-5, the talent can assume there will be roughly 56 people seen (7 hours x 6 appointments).   Factoring in normal attrition for any audition, I would guess the actual odds are roughly 1:50 (without factoring in talent which is impossible for this exercise).

If we divide the $750 return by the fifty people she is seeing you come up with the number 15. Based on a quick calculation, that is the maximum amount that should be spent for the audition given the odds. In other words, I feel an economist would suggest passing on the job if the costs were over $15.00.

This is now where an agent’s or manager’s experience and savvy is crucial. Beth specifically mentions the director is not only an award winner but very loyal. She also mentions that the spot is comedic and takes “amazing actors.” If an agent believes an actor is truly exceptional, then those odds likely drop dramatically where they range from about 1:15 to 1:25.

Loyalty and future work with the director calls for a separate calculation, and this is where things get really speculative. If I had to guess how much subsequent loyalty is worth after an initial job, I would say somewhere between $5-10K. That’s a broad range, but using the new figure of $5K in additional work with 1:25 odds for the initial job, I think it is worth roughly $200 in costs to pursue the small market job.

In this case, without even talking actual calculations with the actor, I would suggest that actor take what appears to be relatively large risk $200 for what is initially a small return $750. In my experience (and apparently Beth’s as well), important careers are built with far greater risks, so I would recommend the audition to anyone I believe is talented.

Success & Jim Valvano

Everybody who knows me knows that I like analogies, particularly sports analogies. Given that, Jim Valvano was the head basketball coach at Iona and North Carolina State where he helped engineer one of the most improbable upsets in basketball history. In 1983, Valvano’s Wolfpack won the ’83 NCAA Championship (http://tinyurl.com/ohy7yvt) over the heavily favored Houston Cougars. He subsequently died very young of cancer and his courage in the face of his disease has provided one of the greatest moments in televised history (http://tinyurl.com/lpbmv24). Today, over 20 years since his death, Valvano’s legacy is nearly mythic, and he still inspires millions to succeed against long odds.

What does Jim Valvano have to do with Voice-Overs?

Years ago I was sitting in a meeting when someone mentioned Jim Valvano and a quote he had made. It went something like: “my only job is to put my players in position to succeed.” At that moment, a light bulb went off in my head. That was my job! I didn’t have a basketball and seven footers, but instead, I had voice-over clients and opportunities to get them work.

Ever since that day, I’ve lived by that phrase and often use it as a sort of mantra when I am bogged down by distractions or dilemmas that have nothing to do with my actual job. I also use the quote as a foundation for goals that I hope to accomplish. For instance, how does hiring a new employee put ACM’s clients in better position to succeed?

Putting Yourself In Position

I wrote a blog piece a couple of weeks ago titled the “Deadly Dozen: the Top Reasons Voice Talent Don’t Succeed” (http://tinyurl.com/prh87o2) in which I detailed many ways to get off-track. But the focus in that piece was more about what not to do. Instead, what does one do to be ready?

Below, I am providing cliché after cliché as if I was a typical coach. Regardless of appearing trite, everything below is expected of any great athlete trying to get better. The same applies for any voice artist. Here are 12 examples of what to do.

  • Practice, practice, practice
  • Constantly set and reset goals
  • Be fearless
  • Prepare and study outside of practice
  • Invest in the correct tools
  • Invest in the best coaching
  • Be on time and on schedule
  • Hold yourself accountable
  • Keep your emotions in check
  • Visualize success
  • Adapt to changing circumstances
  • Embrace adversity

Training and Discipline

All twelve of these traits take for granted that talent is willing to train and prepare. In athletics, I know the type of rigorous training I endured to be, at best, decent. I also know in hindsight, that I could have been even better if I had been more disciplined.

There was a myth when I was a teenager about great athletes having God-given genetic superiority. Granted, some have more gifts than others, but what I have learned as I got older is that desire, discipline, preparation and hard work trump natural gifts and also lead to far greater sustainable success. In other words, if voice talent put themselves in position to succeed and their agents do the same, a great career is inevitable.

The Future of Voice-Over Agents and Managers

Last week, I discovered a really talented voice-over agent had decided to leave the business. He loved the work and had made sacrifices to stay in the industry, but he just could not compromise any further. His salary was still stuck in 2009 and he was watching non-union work and PTP sites swallowing up a large percentage of his business. It was too much to bear.

I was not going to argue with him. I knew 95% of his voice-over experience was in commercials, and he had built his reputation there.   I also knew his strong suit was developing talent, which has been so marginalized by the desperate need to capitalize on every short-term opportunity.

DID ANYTHING REALLY CHANGE?

I didn’t start out in commercials, which remains the backbone of the voice business since the inception of the industry.   Instead, I began in promos (and very secondarily narrations), where I was forced to be more entrepreneurial and improvisational to build my business.   Even when I was successfully running a commercial department, I recognized the day-to-day foundation of that business was still based on a Mad Men era model.

In fact, while discussing Mad Men with a younger colleague, I made a comment that if he had to step back in time to 1965, he would be able to do the same job he does today. All he needed to do was figure out a 50 year old telephone system, a rolodex and carbon paper.   Now, we may have PC’s, email and the Internet, but talent agencies as a rule have stuck to their 50 year old guns and created digital facsimiles of analog methods and called it innovation.

INNOVATION AND NEW FRONTIERS

There have been only two predominant types of voice-over agency innovation and both have only evolved in the last 10-20 years.

  • Digital disrupters that combine agency models with casting such as the PTP sites and Voicebank.
  • Voice Agencies pursuing other categories of work beyond advertising, of which the majority have been in entertainment.

When it comes to the “digital disrupters,” the agencies have been competing head to head with PTP’s, and while they dismissed PTP’s as low rent work, they ignored that their business was more scalable and inclusive.

As for new work, talent agencies have only invested in pursuing or planning for new opportunities when the commercial money was flowing. There was never really a plan on how to adapt and evolve if the business changed.

ADAPT OR DIE

Realistically, and the former agent will admit this, he never imagined the business changing to this degree and he is not the sort to develop an area from scratch. He has, in fact, accepted that he is unable to adapt and is more willing to walk away than cause himself anymore discomfort.

I look at some of the agencies and wonder if they would be willing to do the same. Most of these agencies do not need commercial departments to remain viable and the one’s who do have principals who should be relatively comfortable if they decided to pull the plug.

Now, don’t assume this is what I am personally advocating. My point is if the talent agencies and managers do not want to continue evolving then they need to decide if participating in the business is still worthwhile to them.